Wednesday, April 25, 2018
Embracing Data Transparency: the political football of science in the arena of environmental regulation
This renewed baptism by political storm has "Science" emerging bright and shining, phoenix like, from the ashes of the 'science wars.' During that time "Science" was made to productively grapple with post-modern critiques of method as truth and science as progress (e.g. Paul Feyerabend, Donna Haraway), analysis of the social construction and practice of science (e.g. Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour, Sheila Jasanoff), and the realization that the ideals of a unified "Science" requires not only restructuring the mundane practices of legions of scientists, but also erasing fundamental differences in the assumptions, world views, and ontologies of a diverse set of scientific practices (Nancy Cartwright).
Thus it seems the 'science wars' have finally been brought to a popular close with the wholesale assault on "Science" as an Idea, and as an ideological tool for ordering society, which had been previously restricted to attacking individual scientists and disciplines found threatening to the status quo (e.g. Lamar Smith's calculated attacks on the NSF to restrict the scope of research and create a culture of fear and scarcity).
And yet, are we really witnessing an assault on "Science"? Or are we still thick in the normal weeds of the long running conflict over the inherently political work performed by different branches of science?
For example, the assault on the administrative state has only given greater power and license to the mundane practice of science in certain disciplines, say oil and gas exploration and manufacturing, which is also certainly not new (see Edward Woodhouse's work on the development of the petrochemical industry which quashed nascent attempts at green manufacturing in the USA).
And now we have the news that Scott Pruitt wants to restrict science considered in rule writing at the EPA to that which has its data publicly available, which on the surface sounds commendable, but in the weeds would appear to exclude a huge number of public health and epidemiology studies based off of confidential information. Those studies generally fall under Institutional Review Board requirements to protect participant confidentiality, and thus, making the raw data behind them would in fact be illegal.
And there is something profoundly uncomfortable to any scholar of "Science" in the way the battle lines are being drawn over this latest initiative. I hate to say it but Pruitt has won the rhetorical high ground on the transparency and reproducibility of science in regulation; all the backlash he receives continues to feed the broader narrative of the Trump administration as standing up to the coddled, privileged, and seemingly unassailable technocratic elite long running Washington.
Now, many of us know that that narrative is deeply flawed for many reasons, not least because Washington has long been infested with industry lobbyists, lawyers, and scientists for hire who have always been deeply involved in both the creation of the regulatory state and its selective repeal (the Underground Injection Control exemptions from the Safe Drinking Water Act granted to the hydraulic fracking industry as one notable example, but there continue to be thousands of unregulated and untested chemicals produced directly and indirectly by the US chemical industry). If there is to be transparency and accountability at the EPA, where is the publicly available science that says those chemicals are safe? This debate is not about science, it is about the structure of environmental governance and where science fits.
Pruitt's hypocrisy in taking publicly funded scientists off of review panels, while allowing those working for industry to continue to serve should be the leverage point in reframing this issue.
As scientists we cannot rely on the unassailable nature of Captain Science, his shield is not big enough to protect us from the tidal wave of public opinion and warranted outrage against the undemocratic production and utilization of knowledge which has long been the norm in modern bureaucratic nation states (James Scott).
Instead, we should be embracing calls for transparency and reproducibility, and accelerating the trend of accountability in scientific agencies. Such a tactic reverses the battle lines, and will confuse the enemy, and if performed well, can increase the scope of reform to include the entire processes by which chemical manufacturers and other toxic industries must be regulated and their activities reviewed.
Again, it's obvious that Pruitt doesn't actually care about transparency. The administration's agenda has always been regulatory rollback and capture - promoting certain science based industries while quashing scientific practice related to studying questions of the public good, or environmental health, and are certainly not new.
Embracing transparency could entail embracing the call for transparency in science used for rule making in all fronts, including all processes of certifying potentially hazardous chemicals.
We could call for all publicly funded science used in rule making or regulatory processes to be subject to public review, as well as all raw data on monitoring of regulated entities to be available for public review (instead of annual totals like in the current databases for toxic releases by permitted manufacturers). Such a call would also encompass privately and industry funded research in private labs for food and safety drug trials, as well as chemical safety trials, including trials that did not meet regulatory requirements. At the
For concerns about confidential data, there have long been ways of reporting public and environmental health data in ways that do not compromise confidentiality, or violate IRB rules - such as masking at the census block group or tract level.
Making that data more publicly available could be used strategically to highlight the vast disparities in toxic risk experienced by certain communities, and broaden public engagement with those issues.
We cannot afford to allow this administration to strategically position itself as the defender of accountability and transparency, and yet the rhetorical tools being rolled out against the EPA decision largely fall along technical lines, what one could call the 'trust' us defense. The problem is that Trump/Pruitt's constituencies do not 'trust' the EPA, or the Washington Political Establishment, or what they see as the Liberal Elite, or scientists, not because of the reliability or veracity of their methods, but because of their social and rhetorical positions and relationship with the state.
"Science" as an institution must mature, embrace it's conflicted social position, and engaged directly with its inherent politics in an explicit manner. Many scientists raised on the petri dish of objectivity will likely find this shift profoundly uncomfortable, and not without reason; the supposed social and political detachment of science, and the academy, is constantly being renegotiated to maintain its privileged social position.
But as Bruno Latour told us, once the mask of objectivity had been lifted, there is no going back, though we can move on from the endless critique of science as Truth, to the use of science to address matters of 'concern.'
Conservatives appear just as concerned about issues of purity and health as their Liberal counterparts, they just have a different framework for balancing risk, economic reward, and individual responsibility. Most environmental inequalities fall more along lines of race and class and their partisan corollaries rather than partisan politics per se.
In reality, environmental regulations continue to underpin country level economic competitiveness, adding requirements to industries that they operate in a socially and environmentally responsible way is better for the overall economy, and certainly not worse. The often cited plant closures due to environmental regulations around the US also coincide with increasing globalization and offshoring of US manufacturing.
That is the type of rhetoric we need to build off of for a transformative 21st century environmentalism that has justice at its core. We need to embed not only principles of 'sound science' but take the high ground on transparency and accountability in government.
The problem then with Pruitt's proposal, is not that it demands transparency, but that it is duplicitous, and seeks to hide risk. In response, we should push for greater transparency and accountability in all arenas of toxic risk regulation, including the private sector. Such a move will likely catch them off guard and even if unsuccessful, will reveal the hypocrisy in their rhetorical claims, depriving them of rhetorical ammunition.
Lifting the veil on how the science based agencies operate may be uncomfortable to their long time operatives, but if embraced judiciously and applied equally, will go a long way in restoring faith in the power (and limitations) of science informing environmental governance.
Friday, April 29, 2016
Thursday, December 22, 2011
I got the feeling that his was a common story; that nobody since before the time of the water wheel had been able to make this paddle straight shot.
I got the feeling that his was a common story; that nobody since before the time of the water wheel had been able to make this paddle straight shot. In our quest for longer paddles in Southern New England however, we are not alone. In his book Uncommon Carriers, John McPhee devotes 8 pages or so to retracing the canoe voyage of Thoreau and his brother documented in Five Days on the Merrimack and Concord Rivers. Ninety percent philosophical tangent and ten percent narrative, the journey in Five Days started Aug 31st, 1839, and traversed 55 water miles from Concord MA to Hookset NH, three years before the Blackstone canal was closed, and twenty years after the Eerie canal was finished. It was a time of transition, the railroad was coming, as Thoreau occasionally lamented in Walden, but he could not have foreseen the age of the automobile. Thoreau didn’t begin writing Five Days until 1845, a possible explanation for his paucity of narrative, and we do know he took his time in traveling as well, as did McPhee, and enjoyed the river for what it was. Perhaps we should’ve followed their lead, but our desire to be responsible students wouldn’t allow it. We didn’t have the same leisure as Thoreau did, who took his water from the river and had completed his ‘education’ years before. Neither did we have portage support from a spouse in a Minivan as McPhee did, but what we lacked in time and logistical support, we made up in pure verve and enthusiasm.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
Jan Gehl’s lecture at RIBA on Tuesday Night laid clear some of the persistent issues with the lunacy of cycling with London. While the city certainly has progressed on many fronts, there is a noticeable paucity if cycling infrastructure when compared to Copenhangen, Amsterdam or even Boulder, Colorado. Gehl’s main message, as I could see it, was that cities should be designed for people, by people. This refreshing burst of energy comes exactly at a time when the engines of economic progress and the clamor for more cars and suburbs have slowed for a variety of reasons; namely the collapse of the housing bubble, increasing awareness of climate change, and a growing impulse of people to refuse to submit to economic objectification and the vast iniquities becoming painfully obvious. Not that the numbers don’t shake out in Gehl’s model; his data collected on the use of regenerated and properly planned urban spaces show that pedestrian density is often representative of high rates of building occupancy, employment and property values. All of this is intuitive, fill space with people, and they will be productive,, fill a city with cars, and they will be congested, polluted with a sacrificial slaughter of the public realm to the god of parking.
While Gehl’s message is more holistic than addressing issues of sustainable transit, much of the discussion afterwards focused on the relative hazards of cycling in London. And understandably so, London’s skyrocketing rates of cycling use. Between the introduction of the congestion charging zone, Boris’s implementation of Ken Livingston’s ideas, growing concern over climate change, and the sheer painfulness of commuting by car in a notoriously congested city the explosion of cycling culture has been nothing short of phenomenal. However, it has become painfully obvious that the city has failed to deliver a city wide, well planned cycling infrastructure. Combined with the anachronistic and undemocratic system of pedestrian crossings, increased cycling has resulted in increased friction between cyclists, pedestrians and automobiles. In the best of times, cycling in the city is an adventure, and a survival contest that has spawned a militant hardcore cycling culture touting expensive and aerodynamic spandex kit. To remedy this situation, there were several concrete proposals that should be rolled out at once.
1) Give cycles a six second green light ahead of car traffic. This would avoid the mad scramble inherent in busy starts, with cyclists, scooters, motorbikes and cars all vying for position, reduce the amount of exhaust that cyclists have to churn through (potentially reducing overall emissions as the startline antics of car drivers will be ameliorated), making intersections safer, and reduce friction between cyclists and pedestrians; as has been shown in a wide array of commentary sections lately, many of those who do not cycle do not realize the advantage of cyclists in running red lights.
2) Carry cycle lanes through intersections, and sidewalks through side streets and driveways as has been done to some degree on Roman Road in the East End.
3) Computerize signaling for bike and pedestrian crossings to be more user friendly, displaying the time till crossing is closed and open.
4) Broaden cycle lanes and sidewalks, and protect cycle lanes with rows of parked cars rather than vice versa.
5) Make public transit more cycle friendly to facilitate long distance cycle commuting, this includes making dedicated bike racks on the underground, overground and national rail services, as well as busses. On my way home from Gehl’s lecture the chain broke on my cycle. I was under the impression that off peak one could take their cycle on the tube, or at least bits of it. At Regent Street station the woman working at the tube told me no way, though said at Baker Street I should be able to. I was rejected there as well, even though later looking up TFL’s policy, I was fully in the right; it was the attitude of TFL employees in both cases that was most frustrating, as they were openly antipathic to my cycle.
While the Danes point of view is openly antagonistic to automobiles in the city, it may be that there are ways to balance the convenience of pedestrian, bike, car and public transport for their respective purposes. Making the city more accessible to people at these different scales will form the basis of more sustainable and enjoyable places. Now if only we can get the river’s clean enough to boat and swim in.
TFL Cycling on Public Transport Policy
Saturday, March 12, 2011
The show homes highlight a focus on sustainability that is growing in England, never mind the rest of the world, as a response to climate change and the litany of environmental and social disorders caused by irresponsible growth. Yet the Prince's house stands out in its approach, one that could be called sustainability through simplicity, whereby good design at the home and neighborhood planning level can go a long way to make places more energy efficient, pleasant and lasting. The use of a high quality building envelope, natural and reclaimed materials and the integration into dense, mixed use, walkable, and well serviced neighborhoods, all contribute to the house's sustainability. A full list of features can be found on the Foundation Website. While sounding a bit soft in its approach, the informative displays behind the house highlight the Foundation's other projects throughout the UK and the world, make it clear that there is a growing technical rigor in our work, in providing location efficiency, measurable cost savings and real environmental, social and health benefits.
While the house is based upon the Foundation's earlier work at the Building Research Establishment site on the 'Natural House,' this particular house will be transported up to the Scottish Ideal Home show before finding a permanent home in one of the Foundation's ongoing projects.